The group of spiritual friends that meet with me on Tuesday nights in our church’s library are all fairly new followers of Jesus. Vivian is possibly the longest and most “normal” Christian of the group. I am the oldest person in the group by almost 20 years. I have been a pastor of five Baptist churches since the Fall of 1968. I am considered by society to be a religious professional. That means my role in the group is to be the authority on all things religious. They are to sit at my feet and to learn from my wisdom. NOT! If there were a more profound way to put in print the “NOT!” in this paragraph, I would attempt to use it.
The honesty and transparency of this group of spiritual friends allow us to relate to each other as peers. That most certainly applies to me. I am a learner from them, just as they occasionally learn from me. This week, it is especially important that I hear from the group, since almost the entire fifth chapter of John involves an argument between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day.
We were seated around an old library table and watched a video presentation of the Gospel of John on an obsolete TV. The Visual Bible presentation that we watched is my favorite, because the actor who portrays Jesus is very authentic and believable. He is especially good when he is arguing with the religious authorities.
We viewed the entire chapter’s presentation. When it was completed, Lena said, “That was intense! When you see this in movie form, it really brings out how strongly the leaders didn’t like Jesus.”
I wanted to make sure that we didn’t miss anything, because of the large volume of material that we covered, so I asked Katie to read a couple of verses. She pulled out her phone from her back pocket, read from a Bible app and said, “Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
“But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (John 5.16-18).
When Katie had finished, I looked around and said, “Just like Lena said, this is intense. If Jesus were to come to religious leaders today many would probably oppose him, just as they did in his day. Why do you think that this might happen in our day and age?”
Vivian is often quiet and a bit reserved. This night she was the first to speak. She said, “Power struggles. Jesus threatened their power. They worked very hard and for many years to achieve their positions of power. I once read that a Jewish Rabbi couldn’t be one until he was forty years old. I believe Jesus threatened their positions of authority, praise and power. There is one thing we all have learned in our lives. The only way to really connect with Jesus is through humility. It is hard for powerful men to be humble.”
Katie was next to join in. She was seated to my right and looked in Vivian’s direction as if she were ready to further Vivian’s ideas to another level. She said, “My experience with religious authorities is the ‘I am god’ attitude that they have. They act like they think they are God and are able to judge people like me.”
Mike C. uttered a one-word view of these authorities and said, “Self-righteous.”
Elaine had joined our group for the night, since we had a small number present. She sat at the end of the table next to Vivian, crocheting a Bible bookmark that she ended up giving to me. Like Mike C. she gave another one-word response. She said, “Hypocrite.”
Katie picked up where she left off in her thoughts. She said, “It seems like there is a small group of look-alikes. If you don’t fit their mold, then you are out. That’s why I am at Maywood. People don’t judge me. They don’t try to fix me. It is come as you are. God fixes us and all we have to do is get people to God. He will do the rest.”
Katie’s friend, Miranda, told her experience of having someone in her extended family who was a pastor. She said, “I went to his church the last time in 2004. I thought that they were condemning me and I lost a relationship with my family for a while over it. I felt that if I didn’t believe and behave the way they taught, then I was wrong. I didn’t go to any church again, until Katie and I came to Maywood a couple of years ago.”
“We were at Denny’s a few years ago,” related Katie. “There was this group of youth leaders there who were talking loud and acting like judgmental little turds. This is why people don’t go to church. This is why I didn’t want to become a Christian for a long time.”
Miranda said, “If being a Christian is looking like that crowd at Denny’s, I don’t want to be one either. Here’s what I thought when I heard them. They acted entitled. They could say anything they wanted and made people like me feel horrible. I don’t think they felt at all bad about their cute remarks and snide sneers.”
Vivian told us about her grandparents. She said, “My grandparents quit going to church, because the preacher told them that women could only wear four kinds of lipstick.”
I thought back to the video we had just seen. I knew the Jewish authorities had built a fence around their religion to keep it pure. The four sides of the fence were food laws, the rite of circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, and the observance of the Law. Their objection to Jesus was that he failed to keep the Sabbath, because he healed a man on that day. Their reasoning was that Jesus could heal on any day of the week, so why did he heal the man and break God’s law of the Sabbath.
I said to the group, “The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a fence that was intended to keep the ungodly, the sinners and the unclean out. They may have kept them out, but they also kept their witness to the world within the fence, too. The purpose of Israel’s existence was to be a witness to the world about the nature of God. I believe the fence they erected to protect their religion also kept their ministry within narrow confines of nationalism.”
I let this thought soak in, while turning to my spiritual friends who circled the table in library. Once I had taken a breath and a drink of water, I tried this illustration on the group. I said, “We Baptists are part of the evangelical movement. I’m afraid that we have built a fence, just like the Jewish people of Jesus’ day built a fence to protect the purity of their religion. Our fence is very public and quite controversial. Without getting into the well-rehearsed particulars of the evangelical fence, it is my opinion that our fence not only keeps people out, but it also keeps our testimony to the love of God in. Here is just one indicator. Since I have been a pastor, the percentage of persons who claim to be born-again Christians (that’s a great evangelical phrase) has decreased from 33% to 17%.”
Lena had heard me talk about the number of people who could walk the three miles to Maywood, just as she occasionally did. She knew there was about 60,000 people living in that area. Rather excitedly for Lena, she said, “If you’re right, there are 48,000 people who do not go to any church in our area.”
Sadly, I agreed with Lena, but I didn’t allow for much time to discuss the topic further. I quickly pointed out that the so-called liberal church isn’t doing too well either. If you make the values of culture the norm, as I believe has happened in the mainline churches of America, then your ministry isn’t transformational. It is nothing more than the repackaged views of popular culture. I feel that the decline of mainline, liberal churches is the result of the fact that people no longer need the forms of religion, devoid of life change. They want something that will genuinely help them experience God’s abundant life that he promises through Jesus Christ (John 10.10). Lacking that, they decline like the evangelical church, but for different reasons.
Lena is often the one who cuts to the very heart of the matter. She once pointed out how I was operating out of pride in a way that was very true, but also innocent of unkindness. She did the same thing with this discussion. She said, “Okay. The Baptists fence people out and the liberals don’t have any fences. Is there anybody who is right?”
“Great question,” I said. I turned to Katie and rephrased her earlier statement. As I spoke, both Lena, Katie and the entire group seemed to be in agreement. I said, “I think Katie has the answer to Lena’s question. Our job is not to judge. Without a doubt, God doesn’t need our protection and for us to build fences. What we need to do is to build bridges, so people can experience friendship with Jesus. Once they come to him, he will make the necessary changes in their lives.”
“You are so right,” said Vivian. She laughed a little as she said, “When women first show up at Maywood, they often wear pretty low-cut tops. Then, the closer they get to Jesus, the more the neckline of their blouses rise. We don’t don’t have clothing police at Maywood. All we need is Jesus. When people live with him, he gives them perfect direction.”
Miranda said, looking right at Kenneth, who had come in late and who stayed for the last few minutes of the group, “What do guys do, when they get closer to Jesus? They don’t have to worry about low-cut tops.” This was the first time Kenneth had met Miranda, but her playful smile let him know the humor behind her question.
The library has a poor excuse for a TV, but it has the best coffee in the building. Kenneth had been rehearsing for a hip-hop concert he was getting ready to do. Kenneth is an African American with long, graying hair. Having lost his driver’s license, he rides the bus and both serves Jesus and collects life-lesson while riding. Kenneth was quick to answer. He said with a smile full of gleaming white teeth, “The closer we get to Jesus the more we quit sleeping around. We replace the ‘F-word” with something we can say in church. And we say ‘in the name of Jesus’ a lot.” In the few minutes Kenneth had been with our group, he had said, “in the name of Jesus” five times.
He said, “I say ‘in the name of Jesus’ a lot, but saying ‘in the name of Jesus’ is so much better than most of the words I have used for years.
I asked Katie to open her Bible app one more time. I said, “Katie, how about getting your Bible app open and read to us from Matthew 7.3-5.”
Katie picked up her phone, thumbed around for a few seconds and found the passage. She read to us Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and said, “‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.'” (Matthew 7.3-5).
When Katie finished reading I said, “I am a very good ‘speck inspector.’ I can quickly see and point out the problem that just about anyone has. Jesus often reminds me that I have a log in my own eye. Even though I can’t see it, I know it is there. As we talk about the way some modern church authorities end up resisting Jesus, we all need to be very humble. If we could see ourselves the way other’s or God sees us, we’d need to deal with that big log of trouble that clouds our vision.”
I took a deep breath and another drink from a bottle of water, looked at the clock on the wall and knew we had a lot to cover in a short amount of time. I said, “What do you think Jesus would have to say about church buildings and money?” As I said this, I told the group that if we were to build our 1950s church building today, it would probably cost around ten million dollars. I thought about the log in my own eye as I asked the question again. I said, “What do you think is Jesus’ opinion of how churches spend money in America? Do you think he approves of our buildings?”
“What’s the church’s mission statement?” said Vivian, this week being more animated than usual. She did a good job of quoting from what the church calls “The Great Commission.” Vivian quoted Jesus and said, “Jesus told us to ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you'” (Matthew 28.19-20).
Vivian followed up the quote from Jesus with her own opinion. She said, “If the church is doing this, it is going to be tracking with Jesus’ plans and purposes. If not, it is going to come into conflict with him.”
Mike C. was seated next to Vivian. He spoke about a well known Christian preacher with a healing ministry. He had seen a 60 Minutes program about this man. Mike told us about the 60 Minutes program and said, “Why does a preacher need the most expensive private jet in the world? Why does he need an 8,000 dollar suit? Why does he stay in hotel rooms that cost a thousand dollars or more a night?”
I explained a little about the thinking behind the so-called prosperity gospel. The pastor in question was a well-known prosperity gospel promoter. I said, “They believe prosperity is a sign of righteous living and God’s approval.”
Mike responded quickly with a fair amount of fire in his voice and said, “I know something very personal about suffering children. I was one of them. Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children,’ not ‘make little children suffer’ while you live in obscene luxury. The only thing Jesus ever did with his prosperity was to give it away to help others.” (See Matthew 19.14 KJV for the phrase “suffer the little children” and see Philippians 2.1-8 for what Jesus did with his wealth.)
Kenneth had come into our group just to get a cup of coffee. He was seated at the end of the table between Vivian and Elaine. Kenneth is very street wise, as is everyone in our group with the exception of me. He said, “Here’s how it see it. If the blessings of God are only about money, then the blessing will soon become a curse. I know lots of people, myself included, who hit bottom in their addiction. They get sober, turn to God, and begin getting their lives together. After a while, it’s like they turn to God and say, ‘I’ve got this. I did good.’ Look out! They’re about to pick up the pipe and totally crash from there.”
Miranda had been listening to the conversation between Mike and Kenneth, turning her head between the two like persons at a tennis match. She is a low voltage electrician. Recently she had an installation in one of the largest churches in the Kansas City area. She said, “I was working in this massive church. We had to rent a special lift to take us to ceiling in the worship center, because our company’s lift isn’t tall enough. The children’s area has everything anyone in the richest part of town would want. I really couldn’t put together what I read about Jesus and what I was helping to build in that building.”
Vivian quietly turned in the direction of Miranda and said, “I think Michael is right. Obscene luxury in the face of great need is just plain wrong.”
Katie seemed to have difficulty expressing what was going on in her mind. She began to speak, stopped herself, and then decided to risk her next thoughts. She said, “I think it is easy for us to look at rich preachers and rich churches. I’m still thinking about what I read about the log in my eye and the speck in another person’s eye. If Jesus were visiting our group tonight, I don’t think he would talk about other preachers and other churches. I think he would tell me about the log that’s mine, all mine.”
“I’ll tell you why Jesus would do that,” said Lena. “I had a very small splinter in my eye last week. I couldn’t wait to get it out. That helps me realize how painful a log in my eye would be? Jesus shows us the logs in our eyes, because he wants us to be free from them. He wants us to really live, and we can’t live with a big, stinking log right in the middle of our eye.”
Elaine had looked up from her crochet work while Lena was speaking. She looked at Lena, made a sign that looked like she was giving a “high five,” and said, “Lena, I’ve never ever thought about Jesus the way you just described it. When I go home tonight, I’m having a meeting with Jesus. My first question is to show me the log that I have in my own eye.”
Kenneth flashed his perfect teeth and said, “I know a little about the log in my eye. I frustrate myself. I do well for a while, then I turn away. When I walk away, I turn to drugs, sex, and crime. I know I cannot forget where I have come from. I have to stay solid with Jesus all the time.” He ended this statement with his customary “in the name of Jesus.”
I had been fairly quiet during the meeting, allowing others members to express their opinions. I thought it was time that I joined the conversation and talked about the way that I resemble the religious establishment that was in conflict with Jesus. I looked at each of the people surrounding the table and said, “Do you remember our discussion about Nicodemus (John 3) a couple of weeks ago?”
I didn’t give anyone a chance to speak. My question was rhetorical and I said, “When Nicodemus came to Jesus, his first words were, ‘We know.’ When we come to Jesus with what we know, rather than asking for what he wants us to know, we’re in trouble. The religious authorities we watched in the video had brains crammed full of information about God, but they didn’t know God personally.”
The table full of spiritual friends, plus the two newcomers, were all nodding in agreement, even though they probably didn’t feel nearly as convicted about what I was saying as I did. I said, “The biggest danger for a guy like me is just this. I have a degree in theology. I have read hundreds of books about Jesus. The temptation I face is to allow information about Jesus to be a substitute for actually knowing him.”
Elaine had just gotten married. She and her husband are beautiful pictures of God’s love in action. They love Jesus, each other and the church in a very fresh and attractive way. Elaine put her crochet work on the table and said, “I knew about Mark for several years before I ever met him. It would be very sad if I had just settled for knowing about him, instead of knowing him.”
I ended the meeting by elaborating on Elaine’s very astute observation. I said, “Elaine, you are absolutely correct. How tragic it is that people settle for knowing about Jesus, rather than knowing him. To be honest with you all, this is one of the biggest temptations I face. If I know about Jesus, I can fool myself and believe I can in some way control him. On the other hand, love is a surrender to the one you love.”
Mike C. said, “So you’re saying we can’t control Jesus. We just have to love him. That’s a new thought.”
I said, “Yes it is. It is much easier to do a Bible study about Jesus or write a blog article about him than it is to actually live in a love relationship with him.”
Lena again was engaged in the discussion. She said, “I’ve known men who wanted to control me.” As she said this she received some nods of assent from a few people around the table.
She continued and said, “I hate when some guy just tries to use me. I don’t want to do that to Jesus, either. I don’t want to disrespect him the way some guys have tried to do that with me.”
I said, “This is a great thought for us to end our discussion tonight. Let’s all work at living with Jesus in the most loving way possible this week.”